IN A recent interview about her debut novel, The Death Of Bees, which earlier this month won the Commonwealth Book Award, Lisa O’Donnell said that her screenwriting background helped her with the pacing of a novel.
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She said she had learned to set things off early “with a bang”. In that novel, she certainly did – we learn within a few pages that the mother of two young girls on a Glasgow housing estate has hanged herself after finding her husband dead.
Similarly, it’s on page 13 of Closed Doors that our narrator, 11-year-old Michael Murray, hears a commotion downstairs and goes to find his mother screaming and covered in blood. His father tells him that she ran away from a man who flashed at her in the nearby woods and subsequently tripped and fell. But the conversation makes it clear to adult readers that she has, in fact, been brutally raped.
The dissonance between what a child narrator knows and what adult readers can make out is fully exploited here to great effect, and is reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s excellent, and equally disturbing novel Room, about a boy held captive by his mother’s rapist. O’Donnell’s streak of black humour does lighten the story somewhat – Michael is charmingly innocent, even when he’s behaving irrationally, but he’s not spoilt. He lives with his family, his parents and grandmother, in Rothesay (where O’Donnell grew up), and his main concerns are excelling at keepie-uppie and trying to understand girls. Boyhood and impending adolescence collide perfectly in those concerns, and when the household is shaken to its core by the attack on Michael’s mother, it seems that boyhood is about to be left far behind.
Michael’s parents naturally want to shield him from the truth of his mother’s attack, but they also want to hide it from their small town. Repeatedly, his mother Rosemary refuses to let her husband, Brian, go to the police. Michael registers her new shorn haircut and her desire to study with the Open University in the same way that his father does: even he understands that she is trying to leave behind the woman who was raped, to assume a new identity. She has so little faith in her community sympathising with her – and little wonder, when her own mother-in-law calls every other woman a prostitute, as Michael observes, much to his father’s delight.
So Rosemary keeps quiet. But it’s not long before her son discovers the truth. O’Donnell is excellent on how this affects him – how it makes him shy of his mother, suddenly; how it makes him angry; how he becomes aware not just of his own family’s secrets, but everyone’s secrets, and the power that a secret has. A childlike fumble in the woods with a fellow schoolgirl, Marianne, gives him a secret of his own, and he holds it close, aware of its power. Meanwhile, another young woman has been attacked but has managed to free herself; all too soon, the newly engaged, soon-to-be stepmother of his nemesis, “Dirty Alice”, is also raped and left for dead. Will Rosemary speak up now?
O’Donnell’s book isn’t simply a modern play on children keeping damaging secrets, a genre perhaps most famously associated with LP Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In those novels, the children hold on to what they know until a moment when betrayal or disillusionment allow them to expose it, to devastating effect. Michael’s secret about his mother isn’t a bomb waiting to go off, but O’Donnell makes it feel like that: despite knowing more than Michael does, we are as powerless as he is to help his mother, desperate as we are for her to gather her strength and report the crime. Every page builds on this tension.
This is very much a story about women and how they find strength in numbers, but also weakness. With a less gossipy mother-in-law, perhaps Rosemary would have felt more inclined to brave the talk and judgment of the women of the town, and it is they whom she fears the most. It’s women who have the public brawls in this town, physically fighting each other when Rosemary’s friend Tricia is revealed to have been having an affair with married “Skinny Rab”. In this still industrial, working-class world of the 1980s, the men may earn the money but it’s the women who run things.
Some may feel O’Donnell is playing safe with a second novel told from a child’s viewpoint, set in a similar kind of place and which revolves around an act of violence which must be kept secret. But while she may have used similar tools, she has nevertheless fashioned yet another humane and compulsive read, grounded in a realism which, depicted through a child’s eyes – with that hint of a child’s surreal perception – gathers together violence, humour and love in a most believable way. n